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Public Citizen Calls on Bush Administration to Let EPA Warn Nation of Insulation Dangers, Explain Why White House Quashed Warning


Jan. 8, 2003
Public Citizen Calls on Bush Administration to Let EPA Warn Nation of Insulation Dangers, Explain Why White House Quashed Warning
By Blocking EPA, White House Put Industry Interests Over Public Safety; Extremely Hazardous Material Estimated in 15 to 35 Million Homes
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The White House should explain why it quashed a national health warning about extremely carcinogenic insulation present in millions of homes and authorize the warning to be issued, Public Citizen said in a letter today.
In the letter sent to Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Public Citizen questioned the administration’s motives and authority to thwart the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) decision to declare a public health emergency in Libby, Mont., in April 2002. The agency also had planned to issue a nationwide warning regarding the severe danger presented by Zonolite insulation, which contains asbestos fibers that are 10 to 100 times more dangerous than “typical” asbestos and is estimated to be in 15 to 35 million American homes.  
Instrumental in killing the warning was John Graham, administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which is part of OMB. In a 2001 report, Public Citizen outlined Graham’s ties to industry when he ran the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and warned that Graham would be an advocate for industry interests when he got his high-powered Washington, D.C. job.
“We hate to say ‘We told you so,’ but we did,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “This is a clear-cut example of how the Bush administration is not just willing, but eager, to put the interests of industry over public safety and bully federal agencies into toeing the line, even if it clashes with their statutory mission. We cannot overlook the public health danger the White House is presenting by quashing this warning.”
The situation was brought to light in a Dec. 29 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, “White House Office Blocked EPA’s Asbestos Cleanup Plan,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Andrew Schneider.  The article related the government’s investigation and the internal debate leading up to the EPA’s decision to declare a public health emergency and issue a nationwide warning. The article also detailed the White House’s interference with that decision and the EPA’s ultimate capitulation.
According to the article, EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman was poised to declare a public health emergency and issue a national public health warning, but “the White House budget office’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs…derailed the Libby declaration.”  White House officials have refused to explain their motivations, nor cite any basis for their actions, to the author or to Public Citizen.
Public Citizen’s letter poses questions to Daniels, including: Under what authority did OMB/OIRA intervene?  Upon what scientific evidence did OMB/OIRA decide to quash the notification?  Did OMB/OIRA meet with W.R. Grace or other insulation officials in contemplation of the notification?  Did the administration’s support of legislation to limit asbestos manufacturers’ liability play a role in this decision?
Public Citizen also urged Daniels to authorize EPA to issue its intended public notification.
“We cannot overstate the gravity of our concern over this matter,” concludes the letter, sent by Claybrook and Frank Clemente, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “Despite EPA’s views to the contrary, OMB/OIRA has muzzled the responsible government agency, essentially forcing it to suppress information about a serious cancer problem that poses a risk to millions of American families.  Graham’s secret role in this decision is the antithesis of transparent, accountable, responsible government, which he claims to support.   We urge the administration not to hide behind closed doors.”
To view the letter, click here.
To view the newspaper article, click here.